The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) and the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina presented their joint recommendations on "Scientific Freedom and Scientific Responsibility" on 26 June 2014 in Berlin. Attended by representatives from the media, the Professors Jörg Hacker and Peter Strohschneider, Presidents of the Leopoldina and the DFG respectively, presented recommendations for handling security-relevant research, placing the subject against the background of the current political debate. With the publication the research organisations respond to the view that science and the humanities must develop ethical principles and mechanisms with which to deal with the freedom of research and the risks of research. In this they are fulfilling their statutory mandate to advise scientists, policymakers and the public.
The recommendations deal with the border line between the freedom to research, which is protected under article 5 of the German Basic Law, and the danger that research findings can be misused for malicious purposes. "Research as an essential basis for progress demands a high level of freedom," said DFG President Professor Peter Strohschneider at the press conference. Laws, he said, were of only limited suitability in minimising the risk of possible misuse. More importantly, there was a need for self-regulation in research as well. Professor Jörg Hacker, the President of the Leopoldina, explained "Researchers should not be content with complying with the legal regulations. With their knowledge, their experience and their freedom, they have a particular ethical responsibility which goes beyond legal obligation." According to Professor Hacker, researchers everywhere bear this responsibility: "International collaboration is a basic principle of successful research, which is why we will be working towards establishing the same standards all over the world."
The Leopoldina and the DFG would like the recommendations to stimulate discussion on the dual-use problem in the science community and thus draw the attention of researchers as well as research institutes towards this issue. Both presidents emphasised that their organisations will be offering their wholehearted support to the dissemination of the guidelines and their general acceptance and to compliance with the principles that have been defined.
The recommendations are directed at individual researchers. They need to be aware that there is a danger that their research might be misused. In critical cases, each individual must take a decision on what is responsible while weighing up the opportunities for research against the risks to human dignity, life and other important aspects protected by the constitution. As a practical guideline, the recommendations discuss risk analysis, measures to reduce risk, considerations surrounding publication of the research results and, as a final resort, the option not to carry out the research at all.
The second section of the recommendations addresses research institutions which must create the frame-work conditions for ethically responsible research. This includes raising awareness of possible risks and providing information required concerning the legal limits imposed on research. The institutions should draw up ethical rules for dealing with safety-relevant research which go beyond the legal requirements. The DFG and Leopoldina recommend that a special committee for Ethics in Research be set up to implement these rules and to advise researchers.
The current public debate was triggered by experiments to determine whether highly pathogenic flu viruses, the bird-flu viruses, could be transmitted to humans. This "dual-use" issue had prompted wide discussions of the benefits and risks of some research projects. In May 2014, the German Ethics Council was commissioned by the federal government to publish a statement on "Biosecurity – Freedom and Responsibility in Research". In 2013, the DFG and the Leopoldina set up an interdisciplinary working group with members drawn from a number of research institutions. In dialogue with the scientific communities and the members of the Leopoldina and the DFG and on the basis of the "Guidelines and Rules on a Responsible Approach to Freedom of Research and Research Risks" agreed by the Max Planck Society in 2010, this group drew up the general guidelines on dealing with security-relevant research that have now been presented. They complete previous statements by the Leopoldina and the DFG as well as the DFG's Code of Conduct “Working with Highly Pathogenic Microorganisms and Toxins” which was updated in 2013.
Cornelia Lossau, DFG Press and Public Relations, Tel. +49 228 885-4328, firstname.lastname@example.org,
Caroline Wichmann, Head of Press and Public Relations at the Leopoldina, Tel. +49 345 47239-800, email@example.com
The printed version can be obtained free of charge from Michael Hönscheid, DFG Press and Public Relations, Tel. +49 228 885-2109, firstname.lastname@example.org.